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Beckett’s vision still matters in ‘Godot’ revival

Special to The Times

Samuel Beckett was among the few writers who dared to peel away the belief systems, goals and diversions we devise to give shape and structure to our lives, and confront the human condition in its most elemental state -- stripped of all props and crutches. In his most famous play, “Waiting for Godot,” a pair of vagabonds search for meaning in a universe that yields no answers.

In an extraordinary coup for a regional company, Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre enlisted German director Walter Asmus, Beckett’s longtime friend and collaborator and an internationally prominent authority and interpreter of the author’s work, to helm its revival of “Godot,” the centerpiece of a star-studded month-long Beckett Festival. The result here is nothing short of a revelation, showing us why Beckett’s vision still matters.

First produced in 1953, “Godot” liberated theater from the constructs of traditional playwriting and paved the way for an entire genre of abstraction and minimalist staging. Its groundbreaking style and lack of conventional plotting earned “Godot” a reputation as a complicated and difficult work, yet Asmus’ clarity and focus reveal that nothing could be further from the truth.

The salvation Beckett’s characters seek may be unattainable, but they themselves are understandable, as Asmus keeps his performers grounded in the simplicity and fierce honesty that separates Beckett from the pretensions of lesser imitators.

When directing his own work, Beckett was notorious for not permitting his actors to inject feeling into their lines. Rather than slavishly re-creating a totally flat reading, Asmus allows some limited emotional latitude (an approach that Beckett approved of in their work together). The trick is maintaining the integrity of the text without lapsing into sentimentality or shtick, and unlike too many attempted revivals, Asmus’ staging walks that line with definitive insight.

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When Joe Spano, as the intellectual tramp Vladimir, puts his coat around the napping Estragon (Robin Gammell), the understated gesture shows all the protectiveness and affection we need to understand their friendship.

When Vladimir complains to the elusive Godot’s young messenger: “You don’t know if you’re unhappy or not? You’re as bad as myself,” his face tells us he recognizes in the boy an incarnation of his younger self. Spano excels at turning each line into a window. Gammell’s Estragon provides a cantankerous, earthy counterpoint, though in comparison this performance lacks a bit of effortless transparency into the character’s soul.

As the master-slave duo Pozzo and Lucky, Cliff DeYoung and Ted Neeley not only symbolize exploitation and greed in the social hierarchy but reveal themselves trapped by it. Lucky’s stooped, shuffling gait represents oppression, his “dance” is a desperate clawing at a net.

In Neeley’s eerie soliloquy (taped not out of performance necessity, as he mouths the words in perfect sync, but rather to situate the sequence deep in Lucky’s thought), what begins as a sigh builds to a guttural howl of rage.

DeYoung mines disillusionment from the blinded Pozzo’s exiting meditation on time -- the production excels at letting the musical eloquence of Beckett’s language shine through.

Their paralysis notwithstanding, Vladimir and Estragon are outside the cycle of domination that traps Pozzo and Lucky, which permits them a glimmer of hope. In the face of absolute uncertainty, Asmus makes it clear that Beckett does not permit us the luxury of despair, not when we can’t even be sure that existence is meaningless. And so his characters endure. In contrast to Hollywood cowboy bravado, this luminous staging shows us what real courage looks like.

*

‘Waiting for Godot’

Where: Rubicon Theatre, 1006 E. Main St., Ventura

When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays

Ends: Oct. 3

Price: $25-45

Contact: (805) 667-2900

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes


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